St Anthony of the Desert

Orthodox Christian Mission

Las Cruces, New Mexico

Fr Gabriel

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Lessons taken From An Old Russian Novel

I am reading Boris Pasternak’s magisterial novel Doctor Zhivago to prepare for a review at the Branigan Library on the 14th of June. I had not read the book in years, and a new translation came on the market at the end of 2010, so I thought it would make an appropriate review. Generations have grown up who do not know this important novel.

Pasternak’s work is far more than the love story the movie made it out to be; it is a sustained meditation on the dissolution of Russia that ensued with the Bolshevik Revolution. It is about the attempted murder of the soul of Russia. No wonder it was banned in his home country until 1988, long after his death and three decades after its initial publication – in Italian. Though the movie made politics and religion mere backdrops, they are at the heart of the novel – as they have been in so many of the great Russian novels.

At the very start of my reading, I was struck by a passage where Zhivago’s uncle Nikolai is talking with a friend. The conversation occurs in the first ten pages of the book and sets an unmistakable tone.

Here’s the passage. Nikolai speaks to Ivan: “What you don’t understand is that it is possible to be an atheist, it is possible not to know whether God exists, of why, and yet believe that man does not live in a state of nature but in history, and that history as we know it now began with Christ, and that Christ’s Gospel is its foundation.”

He goes on to say, and this is crucial, that there are three elements in the Gospel of Christ that enable us to live in history spiritually. The first is love of the neighbor. This is basic, fundamental, and it is the vital energy that spreads out from the self to embrace other persons. It is the engine that drives history, for Nikolai. He goes on, “And then the two basic ideals of modern man – without them he is unthinkable – the idea of free personality and the idea of life as sacrifice.”

Uncle Nikolai’s speech foreshadows the disaster that is about to fall upon Russia, which is only partially physical. The true disaster is the death of the soul that unfolds throughout the course of the novel. The character of Strelnikov (“the shooter” or assassin) played by Tom Courtenay in the movie says, “the individual is dead in Russia.” Zhivago is one representative person’s attempt to remain a free individual in the midst of the disaster, terror, and enslavement of his people.

Since we are living in the afterglow of Pascha – also called Easter – this passage virtually leapt off the page of the book at me. Of course!  Atheism or theism: the argument misses the mark. I have no brook with atheism. I just find it beside the point, even as does Yuri’s Uncle Nikolai in Doctor Zhivago. The Gospel of Christ changed the world. That’s undeniable. The resurrection is the inauguration of that change, written into the Gospel itself, and that change spread from Jerusalem to the corners of the earth. That’s the point.

Uncle Nikolai says in his speech that the three elements in the Gospel – love for the neighbor, free personality, and life as sacrifice – were essentially unknown in previous dominant cultures. The “great men” of the world were those who killed and enslaved, not those who enriched and sacrificed for, others. The haunting questions remain. Are we learning to live by these three Gospel elements? Or do we continue to exist in a time of brutality and slavery, before the resurrection?

published 06 May 11